Thompson's work with unions as governor could hurt his Senate campaign

Thompson worked closely with the state employees’ chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which endorsed him in his 1994 and 1998 reelection campaigns for governor. Thompson supported a $4 billion expansion the state employee pension system in 1999, a change pushed for by the union.

Those efforts stand in stark contrast to Gov. Scott Walker’s (R) anti-collective bargaining efforts and could turn off GOP primary voters.  

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“With Walker’s recent defense of his actions it’s hard to square any cooperation with labor unions, let alone expanding their benefits, with where the GOP is today,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Charles Franklin. “This critique of Thompson as an accomodationist, one willing to work with unions to expand their power, seems tailor-made for the campaign.”  

Dennis Boyer, a former state lobbyist for AFSCME, said Thompson had a strong working relationship both with him and with Marty Beil, the head of AFSCME’s state employees chapter. That relationship led Beil’s union to back Walker in 1994 and 1998, which angered some other unions that were more closely aligned with the Democratic Party.

“I was in his office or with one of his staff almost weekly in a cordial, collaborative way,” Boyer said. “Right from the get-go, he did some reach-out. He came in when the revenue picture was not good and made the state employees a partner in dealing with that, and set the stage for some creative solutions.”  

The former governor is facing a tough primary challenge from former Rep. Mark Neumann (R-Wis.) and Wisconsin State Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R), a close ally of Walker's. He has already been attacked by conservative Washington-based groups supporting Neumann, including the Club for Growth and Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) Senate Conservatives Fund, for what they describe as a major increase in government spending during his time.  

“Tommy had a very good relationship with AFSCME, especially the police and firefighters and the prison guards,” said former state Sen. Judith Klusman (R), a centrist Republican who opposed the pension expansion because she felt it unfairly benefited older government employees at the expense of younger workers.  

“Tommy did a very good job of portraying himself as a fiscal conservative, but personally I look at him more as a moderate,” she said.  

Thompson’s campaign said he fought for fiscal responsibility and that the bill’s bipartisan support showed it was a good piece of legislation.  

“The State Legislature overwhelmingly approved in a bipartisan vote the pension provisions, and Tommy Thompson took care to protect the pension fund as well as the taxpayers,” said Thompson spokesman Darrin Schmitz. “Because of Thompson’s stewardship, Wisconsin does not have the large unfunded liabilities other states experience and the state’s pension system and fund is held up as one of the best of the country."

The state was flush with cash at the time, making it easier to make the change. But years of budget shortfalls in Wisconsin have made Republican voters much more resistant to spending increases, say observers in the state.  

State Sen. Glenn Grothman (R), a hard-line fiscal conservative, described Thompson as “pretty big-spending for a Republican governor” and said “he was endorsed by AFSCME for a reason.”  

Grothman, who fought the pension expansion, said much of Thompson’s spending policies were driven by Democratic or narrow Republican legislative majorities.  

“Tommy had to deal with majorities that weren’t as great and also some liberal Republican characters,” Grothman said. “One of the reasons Tommy was so big-spending was because he had some big spenders in the Legislature.”  

Thompson's campaign agrees with that assertion.

"His dramatic tax cuts and reforms were victories for conservatives, and his record demonstrates he was able to accomplish many of his historic reforms despite dealing with a Democrat Legislature for much of his tenure," said Schmitz.

Ed Garvey, a Democrat who ran against Thompson in 1998, said there’s a big contrast between Thompson’s dealings with the unions and how Walker approached them. “Tommy agreed to decent wages and benefits. His goal was to neutralize labor in terms of his campaign. He was liked by not all of them, but some,” Garvey said. “Walker came in trying to destroy labor.”  

That difference could hurt Thompson’s campaign — Walker will likely face a recall election in the spring or summer, just before Thompson’s August primary. The arguments Walker has made for why it was necessary to fight public employee unions seem to directly contradict Thompson’s actions as governor. If partisan passions remain inflamed on the issue through Thompson’s primary, that could be problematic for the former governor.  

“With Walker’s recent defense of his actions, it’s hard to square any cooperation with labor unions, let alone expanding their benefits, with where the GOP is today," said Franklin.